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Bracken Moor

by on 21 April 2023

Moor Grousing

Bracken Moor

by Alexi Kaye Campbell

Q2, at the National Archives, Kew until 22nd April

Review by Claire Alexander

It is unusual to see a play firmly set in the early part of the 20th Century written by a contemporary writer.  But this is what Alexi Kaye Campbell has done with Bracken Moor, set as it is in a Yorkshire mining community in 1937, on the edge of wild Bracken Moor.   Think Wuthering Heights.   It is the inter-war years, and the hedonism and rebound of the twenties has settled into the economic reality of the late thirties.   We meet the Pritchards and the Averys – the latter, Vanessa and Geoffrey have come to visit Harold Pritchard (and his wife Elizabeth), the owner of a struggling mine, which he has inherited from his father.   The Averys have brought their 22 year old son, Terence, with them and it quickly becomes clear that Terence and Edgar (the Pritchard’s son) were inseparable childhood friends.   It is not obvious immediately but clearly something terrible has happened to Edgar. 

It is brave of Campbell to set a play in this era, with the strict etiquette and manners of the time, especially when you discover (from a bit of googling) that Campbell was brought up and educated in Greece.   On the whole I think he succeeds with capturing the atmosphere of the setting – the austere unemotional mine owner, in the bleak rundown house and who has no conscience or sensitivity for the community he is supposed to serve.   And I think Q2 players, in this production, portrayed this well, with their rather ramshackle broken down set.   It is always a challenge when you have limited ‘get in’ time and the restrictions of a theatre space to create a flawless set, but actually I think Q2 (and Harriet Muir and Bob Gingell) made a virtue of these constraints and the set complemented the atmosphere and the subject of the play.  

As the play starts we meet John Bailey, local miner, who would have been leading the picket lines and negotiating with the government if he had been living in the time of the miner’s strikes of the 1980s.   Sadly in Bracken Moor his passionate plea for the livelihood of the miners community versus technological change, fall on the deaf ears of ruthless Harold.   At this point you think the play is going to revolve around this eternal question that we still grapple with today – a social commentary of the time.   But this proves to be a bit of a red herring when the Avery’s arrive from London, to see their old friends for the first time in ten years.  It is evident that something unspeakable happened to Edgar just after their last visit and the ensuing toll this has had, in particular on Elizabeth and, as we discover later, Terence.   And the play quickly turns on its head and becomes a chilling ghost story.  The plight of the miners is quickly forgotten.

Spoiler alert!  I will spare you the details of Edgar’s fate.   The heart of the play is then about the different ways that people grieve, particularly in these days when saving face and maintaining a social front against all odds was paramount.    Harold has carried on entirely emotionless,  as if nothing had happened;  Elizabeth has retreated into herself and the house, and other people have labelled her hysterical;  you get the feeling Terence has given up his establishment Oxford education to find mystery in the ‘east’, and idealism, prescient in his thoughts on the future of the 20th Century.  Though unsaid you get the feeling all this partly as a tribute to his childhood friend.   Vanessa Avery’s response (brightly played by Simone White), in a lovely detail, is to cheer up the run down house with the whimsical ‘butterflies and pineapple’ art deco wallpaper designs of the time! 

The brooding atmosphere of Bracken Moor eventually comes into its own and the play reaches its climax when Terence, perhaps precipitated by sleeping in Edgar’s old room, takes on the persona of his childhood soulmate, and there ensues a sort of exorcism of his ghost. 

At times I was not sure which direction this play was taking, but by the end it is firmly an old-fashioned ghost story, with a bright, optimistic, though slightly implausible ending, as the restless soul of Edgar is finally allowed to rest and with it the grief of his parents and friends. 

I think Q2 made a bold attempt at this multi-layered play, if possibly at a rather nervy first night.  Perhaps the play would have been a little more taut with some judicious cutting which would have helped maintain the tension; and pace would have injected more of a chill into the narrative.  But the characters were real and held my attention.   I understand it was the first experience on stage for several members of the cast and, in this respect, well done to Jamie Rhodes for taking on the complicated role of Terence.   Stephen Tester, as the dedicated Bailey, pleading for his fellow miners, had some of the most compelling speeches and can trust himself more with that passion.   Mark Cairns, as Harold, sustained the determined detachment of Harold throughout and there was a nice moment at the end when you briefly saw a chink in Harold’s emotional armour.  I wish the tableau at the end as Harold is left alone on stage with the image of the 12 year old Edgar had been held a little longer.  I barely saw it and it provided a touching end.   Performance of the evening however came from Anna Piggott as the tortured Elizabeth who found a believable balance with long supressed emotion, without becoming over hysterical. 

The production was complemented by original music by Felicity Morgan, and could even have been used a bit more to heighten the haunting atmosphere of the play (though if I am being picky sound effects were a little loud at times and we lost some of the audibility and clarity of the actors as a result).   Similarly more moody lighting at times would have added to the chill of the ghost story. 

Congratulations however to Q2 and director Harriet Muir for bringing us a spirited production of this interesting insightful play.    Trust what you have and there is a nice blend of touching personal moments and the overall chill of the central narrative.

Claire Alexander, April 2023

Photography by Bob Gingell

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  1. Spring Show Success Bracken Moor – Q2 Players

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